39: Picking Up the Pieces

39: Picking Up the Pieces

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Angels and Miracles

Picking Up the Pieces

However long the night, the dawn will break.

~African Proverb

The first year after my husband John died, I felt as though I had plunged down some enormous black hole. John had died suddenly — violently — in a plane crash. I was unprepared. What wife at thirty, mother of three small children, thinks of becoming a widow?

I missed little things the most. The way John and I touched toes at night as we slept. Our Saturday ritual of shopping together, always winding up at the ice cream store. Silly games he played with our kids who were nine, seven, and five.

Sometimes, as I folded clothes or brought in groceries, I felt like a vase I remembered from my grandmother’s house. Something had struck it, shooting hairline cracks all through. From a distance it still looked whole, but one day, before our eyes, it simply collapsed and fell into pieces.

Would that happen to me? It seemed so hard to hold myself together.

My parents worried about me. One day, six months after John died, my mother suggested, “Why don’t you go back to school? I’ll help with the kids.”

I had married after only two years of college. Now that I was the head of household, I would soon need a job. A college degree would help, I agreed. So I signed up for an English Lit class at San Diego State. Alan Richards, the young professor, was a stimulating teacher.

One October morning, between classes, I bumped into him in the student union.

“Join me for coffee,” he invited.

I was delighted and followed him eagerly through the crush of students. He wasn’t a tall man but he had a freewheeling, sure-of-himself air. “You turned in a good paper last week,” he said, as we found a table. I blushed like a teenager. Soon, I was telling him about John and how I hoped to earn my bachelor’s degree.

I learned that Dr. Richards was a never married bachelor of thirty-five. He liked classical music, as did I, and theatre. And sailing. A few weeks later, he invited me to the symphony. The next weekend he invited me to go sailing.

The rest of that fall we saw each other. He seemed to like my kids, although they didn’t pay much attention to him. By the New Year, I began to have thoughts I never expected. I had deeply loved my husband, but I missed being part of a couple — part of a family Could it be that I had met someone else I could love?

But as the semester ended, Alan seemed — well, agitated. As if something bothered him.

“Is everything okay?” I asked softly, when he picked me up one Friday evening.

He drove for a few blocks without speaking and then pulled off into a parking lot near a neighborhood park. He swallowed hard and said, “Barbara, I’m so sorry. You’re a wonderful woman but—I’ve come to realize I can’t handle a ready-made family and — well, I think it’s best if we stop seeing each other.”

My ears buzzed. Something inside me seemed to crack, like my grandmother’s vase. “I hope you can understand,” he said, as he drove me back home. But all I understood was the dreadful emptiness of another loss. In the weeks that followed I felt nearly as bereft as I had in the first weeks after John died. And something more. I was angry.

One morning, as I reached for a juice glass, something inside me exploded. “It’s not fair!” I screamed as I threw the glass to the floor. It shattered noisily and as I looked down I felt as if my life was as shattered as the bits of jagged glass.

I didn’t want to sign up for another class the next semester, but my mother persuaded me. “It’s a big campus,” she said. “You won’t have to see him. And you need to earn your degree.”

Reluctantly, I agreed. But as I headed toward the registration building, I suddenly saw Alan striding across campus in his self-confident way. I couldn’t face him. It still hurt too much. In a panic, I darted into the first doorway I saw, and found myself inside the college chapel.

I had probably passed the small stone chapel hundreds of times but had never gone inside. It was empty. Thick walls muffled the college clamor outside. Wooden pews faced a bare altar. Behind the altar was a stained glass window through which light flooded the chapel. I slid into one of the pews.

To some, the chapel might have held a quiet peace. All I felt was an unpleasant queasiness, as if I were in an elevator that had dropped too suddenly.

My throat clogged as I began to cry. “I’m not going to make it,” I said to the empty air. But then something made me lift my head—and look directly at the stained glass window. It dominated the little chapel and showed God’s finger reaching toward man’s in a depiction of Michelangelo’s famed painting. A mosaic of colored glass chips formed a rose-and-lavender border.

I suddenly felt as if God were reaching down to touch me at that very moment. Slowly, it dawned on me. This window — this beautiful whole window—was formed from hundreds of tiny pieces of broken, shattered glass. If those fragments could be shaped into a beautiful whole pattern, perhaps God could do the same with the pieces of my life. I could be whole again.

As clearly as if I heard the words aloud, a voice spoke inside me: Pick up the pieces, Barbara. Make something of them. Something beautiful.

For one brief, luminous instant, I saw in my future a kaleidoscope of possibilities: Mother! College graduate! Working woman! And yes, perhaps even wife again. Successful! Happy!

The moment passed. But something changed in me after that day. I saw that Alan was not the only way to rebuild my life. Depression gave way to a sense of acceptance, and eventually to an eagerness to go on. I would always love John, but life beckoned like an unfinished picture. It would be different from what I had once imagined, but now I knew it could still be beautiful.

~Barbara Bartocci

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